In Celtic and Arthurian folklore, white stags were prominently featured and represented otherworldly messengers or symbolized a knight’s quest for purity and salvation.

The Celts, as well as other northern European peoples, believed that the appearance of white stags signalled that one had entered sacred or forbidden grounds. In the legends of King Arthur, the white stag’s amazing ability to evade capture came to symbolize the elusive nature of a knight’s quest for purity, glory and salvation.

White stags were also found in Taiwanese folklore, especially in those of the Thao people of Sun Moon Lake. Like their European counterparts, the Taiwanese stags symbolized mysterious, otherworldly and prophetic motifs.

An indigenous Taiwanese Thao tale went something like this:

Print: Harp player with white stag and doe on black background

With a small band of highly trained hunters and packs of their hounds, the chief of the Thao people set off on the hunt. With them, they brought enough rations to keep them going for a fortnight. The Thao of this time were expert hunters of wild boar, deer and other woodland beasts of the Taiwanese highlands.

Full of hope and anticipation, the chief and his men set off.

Luck, however, was not with them. As the days dragged on, the men found themselves burning through their rations with nothing to show for their labour. Their families, hungry, eagerly awaited their return with the forest’s nourishing bounty. As yet, however, their sacks were empty.

The men were becoming desperate.

Photo: Silhouette of bowman

One day, the men found their dogs very much agitated. The highly trained hounds were alert. Soon, they began to bark and growl fiercely into the woods.

Suddenly, a magnificent, regal stag, ghostly white, appeared from amongst the trees. The hunters set loose their canine companions and the chase was on.

The hunters tracked their mysterious prey for days, over numerous peaks and penetrating deep into unfamiliar territory. The white stag, however, always managed to evade capture. With their families’ survival and their collective pride and reputation as hunters on the line, the men pressed on.

At last, the band of hunters cornered the white stag on the edge of a lake. Just as they approached to finish off their prey, however, the white stag leapt high into the air and into the water. The mysterious beast then vanished. Stunned, exhausted and demoralized, the hunters had to give up.

Photo: White stag

With their heads hanging low, the hunters collapsed on the lakeshore. Their feet, ankle-deep, dipped despondently into the lake water.

This was when numerous little strange and unfamiliar creatures swarmed the hunters from beneath the surface. The hunters dwelled deep in the mountain woodlands of Taiwan. They hunted beasts and relied on springs and wells for water. These men had never seen fish before.

The Thao hunters, at first fearful, realized that the fish could be captured and eaten. They enjoyed the delicious meal and brought large quantities back to their home village. Though they were unable to capture the regal white stag, the mysterious beast had led the Thao people to an even better prize.

In time, the Thao hunters, with their families, relocated to the lake of the white deer and became fishermen. Today, that lake is called Sun Moon Lake and this is the story of how the indigenous Thao people came to settle on the shores of that beautiful body of water in the centre of Taiwan.

Photo: Sun Moon Lake in Nantou, Taiwan
Sun Moon Lake in Nantou, Taiwan
Posted by:Island Folklore

An online repository of Taiwan’s folktales, history, legends, myths and traditions.